Historical perspective: Unit of time, second


Before 1960, the unit of time the second, was defined as the fraction 1/86 400 of the mean solar day. The exact definition of "mean solar day" was left to astronomers. However measurements showed that irregularities in the rotation of the Earth made this an unsatisfactory definition. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, the 11th CGPM (1960) adopted a definition given by the International Astronomical Union based on the tropical year 1900. Experimental work, however, had already shown that an atomic standard of time, based on a transition between two energy levels of an atom or a molecule, could be realized and reproduced much more accurately. Considering that a very precise definition of the unit of time is indispensable for science and technology, the 13th CGPM (1967-1968) chose a new definition of the second referenced to the frequency of the ground state hyperfine transition in the caesium-133 atom. A revised more precise wording of this same definition now in terms of a fixed numerical value of the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium-133 atom, ΔνCs, was adopted in Resolution 1 of the 26th CGPM (2018).


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CGPM Resolution 1 (1967)

SI unit of time (second)

CGPM Resolution 1 (2018)

On the revision of the International System of Units (SI)

CGPM Resolution 9 (1960)

Definition of the unit of time (second)